- The History Behind 7 Passover Traditions
- Why is Passover celebrated?
- When is Passover?
- What is a Haggadah?
- What is the Passover story?
- Thank you!
- What is a seder?
- What are some key symbols of the Passover seder?
- What are traditional Passover foods?
- Why don’t Jews eat leavened bread during Passover?
- What is the meaning of the Passover foods?
- Passover 2019: The meaning of the foods eaten during the Jewish festival
- Shank bone
- Hard-boiled egg
- Avoiding leavened bread
- Ridding the house of hametz
- Fast of the First Born
- The Seder
- Eating matzah
- Synagogue services
- No work
- Beans And Rice For Passover? A Divisive Question Gets The Rabbis’ OK
- FACT CHECK: We strive for accuracy and fairness. But if you see something that doesn’t look right, click here to contact us!
- The Passover Story
- 10 Plagues
- Questions of Historical Accuracy
- Passover Traditions
- Passover Seder Dinner
- A Guide to Eating on Passover
- Bread and other leavened grains
- Processed Foods
- Matzah Balls
The History Behind 7 Passover Traditions
Passover is nearly here, which means millions of observing Jews all over the world will be riding their pantries of all leavened breads and gearing up for a seder — or maybe two.
This year, Passover begins at nightfall on March 30 and ends on April 7. The Jewish holiday is centered around the retelling of the Biblical story of the Jewish people being freed from slavery in Egypt. Every family has its own Passover rituals, which may reflect family tradition or the denomination of Judaism (some are more orthodox, others less traditional).
If you’re new to this observance — maybe you have been invited to your first Passover seder, or maybe your church has decided to host one in advance of Easter — here’s a Passover primer for all your questions including the history behind it, what a seder is and why people don’t eat leavened bread during the holiday.
Why is Passover celebrated?
Passover commemorates the Biblical story of Exodus — where God freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. The celebration of Passover is prescribed in the book of Exodus in the Old Testament (in Judaism, the first five books of Moses are called the Torah). The holiday is often celebrated for eight days (seven in Israel), and incorporates themes of springtime, a Jewish homeland, family, remembrance of Jewish history, social justice and freedom — including recognizing those who are still being oppressed today. All of these aspects are discussed, if not symbolically represented, during the Passover seder.
Whether or not the Exodus actually happened remains unclear, and it continues to be a mystery that still confounds biblical scholars and archeologists alike.
Elon Gilad, who writes about history and language, told Haaretz that Passover traditions are actually the result of merging of two ancient festivals celebrating spring, one of nomadic origin and one from villages.
“Not only does our modern Seder wildly diverge from the Passover of old: during antiquity itself the holiday underwent radical changes,” Gilad writes.
When is Passover?
Passover takes place in early spring during the Hebrew calendar month of Nissan, as prescribed in the book of Exodus. Exodus 12:18 commands that Passover be celebrated, “from the fourteenth day of the month at evening, you shall eat unleavened bread until the twenty-first day of the month at evening.”
Because the Hebrew calendar does not match up with the Gregorian calendar, the date of Passover (along with other Jewish holidays) changes every year. In 2018, Passover will take place from sundown on March 30 to sundown on April 7; seders will be held on March 30 and for those who do a second seder, March 31.
Passover dates for the coming years are:
- 2018 – March 30 through April 7
- 2019 – April 19 through 27
- 2020 – April 8 through 16
- 2021 – March 27 through April 4
What is a Haggadah?
A Haggadah is a book that’s read during the seder that tells the story of Passover. The Hebrew word “Haggadah” means “telling,” and according to My Jewish Learning, Haggadot date back to the Middle Ages.
In contemporary Passover celebrations, relevant political or social justice themes have been incorporated into the seder. For example, Rabbi Arthur Waskow published the “Freedom Seder” in 1969, which discussed the Civil Rights movement and the women’s movement. And while there are myriad Haggadot to choose from to fit nearly all religious, age-specific, political or even satirical needs, the retelling of the Exodus is a key fixture in a Haggadah, along with the reading of the 10 plagues, the asking of the four questions, and explaining various Passover rituals, some of which date back 2,000 years, according to My Jewish Learning.
What is the Passover story?
In the (very) basic Passover storyline, the Pharaoh is fearful that there will be too many Jews living in Egypt so he institutes slavery and demands that male Jewish babies be killed. Baby Moses is saved by his mother, who floats him in a basket down the Nile river, where he is found and adopted by the Pharaoh’s daughter. After killing a slave master, Moses flees into the desert, and encounters a burning bush of God revealing himself to Moses. God tells Moses to go to Pharaoh and lead the Jews out of slavery.
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Moses goes to the Pharaoh and asks that he let the Jews go free from Egypt. Each time the Pharaoh says “no,” God sends a plague down on Egypt (darkness, lice, boils, cattle disease, etc.). The tenth and final plague is the most drastic: the killing of the first born by the so-called angel of death. In order to protect their first-born children, the Israelites marked their doors with lamb’s blood so the angel of death would pass over them. Thus the name Passover, which is “pesach” in Hebrew. The Israelites were ultimately freed from slavery and wandered the desert for 40 years before making it to the promise land.
What is a seder?
The Hebrew word “seder” translates to “order,” and the Passover seder is a home ritual blending religious rituals, food, song and storytelling. Families hold a seder on the first and sometimes second night of Passover.
It is fundamentally a religious service set around a dinner table, where the order in which participants eat, pray, drink wine, sing, discuss current social justice issues and tell stories is prescribed by a central book called the Haggadah.
What are some key symbols of the Passover seder?
On Passover seder tables, you may see a partitioned plate containing small amounts of specific food.
This is the seder plate, and each food is symbolic for an aspect of Passover: A roasted shank bone represents the Pescah sacrifice, an egg represents spring and the circle of life, bitter herbs represent the bitterness of slavery, haroset (an applesauce-like mixture with wine, nuts, apples, etc.) represents the mortar used by the Jews in Egypt, karpas (or greens, often parsley) to represent spring.
Also placed on the table are three pieces of matzah — a cracker-like unleavened bread — that represent the bread the Israelites took with them when they fled Egypt, and salt water to represent the tears of the slaves. At your seat, you may see a specific wine glass (or kiddish cup). The Torah commands that (at least) four symbolic cups of wine be consumed during the Passover seder.
There may also be one or two extra kiddish cups at your table: One is a cup of wine for the prophet Elijah whose spirit visits on passover. In some families, a cup of water is set out for Moses’s sister Miriam. This new feminist tradition symbolizes Miriam’s Well, which provided water for the Israelites in the desert; it also symbolizes the importance of women during the Exodus.
On the chairs, you may see pillows. This is because on Passover you are supposed to recline at the table as a symbol of being free.
Don’t worry if you can’t keep this all straight. Because Passover is a retelling of a story to new generations, and due to the seder’s prescribed order, the Haggadah does a pretty good job explaining many key elements and symbols as you read along. There is even a specific section of the seder called the four questions, where the youngest person at the table asks about the different Passover symbols and the elders explain.
What are traditional Passover foods?
In addition to eating the foods represented on the seder plate (with the exception of lamb, which is not eaten) a Passover meal — that breaks up the two halves of the seder — is served.
The meal’s menu will differ depending on family tradition. Traditional dishes include matzo ball soup, gefilte fish, beef brisket, chicken and potatoes. Traditional Sephardic (Mediterranean and Spanish) Passover foods reflect a Mediterranean spin on the Passover dinner.
Why don’t Jews eat leavened bread during Passover?
Not featured during the meal are leavened foods made of grain known as “chametz.” Chametz is prohibited during Passover, so you won’t find any pasta, cookies, bread or cereal at the seder. (More traditional Jews will completely clean out any foods containing chametz from their home.)
This has to do with the story of Passover: After the killing of the first born, the Pharaoh agreed to let the Israelites go. But in their haste to leave Egypt, the Israelites could not let their bread rise and so they brought unleavened bread. This specific dietary requirement is spelled out in Exodus 12:14, “You shall eat nothing leavened; in all your dwelling places you shall eat unleavened bread.”
To commemorate this, Jews do not eat leavened bread for eight days. While all Jews are required to abstain from chametz, Ashkenazi Jews are also prohibited from eating rice, corn or legumes – known as “kitniyot.” while Sephardic Jews eat kitniyot during Passover.
Any bread-like substance (cakes, dumplings, etc.) found at the seder will be made by combining matzoh meal, some sort of fat, and eggs to remain kosher for Passover.
If you want to bring something for the host, pick up an item from the kosher for Passover section of your supermarket, or stick to a bottle of kosher wine or flowers.
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What is the meaning of the Passover foods?
What is the meaning and significance of eating bitter herbs, eating unleavened bread, eating lamb, and drinking wine during the passover meal?
In preparation for the last plague, God directed Moses to establish the Passover feast. The feast was to occur while an angel sent by God killed the first born in every family and the first born of all the animals. The term “passover” refers to the fact that every family that participated in the Passover Feast would be “passed over” and no one would die in their home or among their cattle (Exodus 12:23-32). As part of the feast, each Jewish family was to also put the blood of a lamb on the lintel and the doorposts of their home (Exodus 12:23-27).
The Passover Feast started with the removal of leaven, bread baked with yeast, from the home (Exodus 12:14-20). Then they were to eat only unleavened bread, or Matzah, for the next seven days of the feast. Leaven was a symbol of sin (1 Corinthians 5:8); so unleavened bread, bread without yeast, was symbolic of a sinless life.
The Passover lamb was to be an animal without blemish or deformity. The lamb was symbolic of Jesus Christ who died for all of us so that we could have our sins taken away (1 Corinthians 5:7).
The next day he saw Jesus coming to him and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! John 1:29 (NASB)
Clean out the old leaven so that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened. For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed. 1 Corinthians 5:7 (NASB)
The slaughter of the lamb symbolized Jesus’ death. The eating of the lamb would symbolize one’s acceptance of His death and the willingness of each person to believe in Jesus as their Savior and Lord (Exodus 12:23-27).
And when your children say to you, “What does this rite mean to you?” you shall say, “It is a Passover sacrifice to the LORD who passed over the houses of the sons of Israel in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, but spared our homes.” And the people bowed low and worshiped. Exodus 12:26-27 (NASB)
The bitter herbs, or Maror, typically included horseradish, salt and green onions (Exodus 12:8). The bitter herbs were a reminder of the bitterness of slavery and suffering in Egypt. It is also a reminder of our sin. It is symbolic of the reason that Jesus had to die.
They shall eat the flesh that same night, roasted with fire, and they shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Exodus 12:8 (NASB)
Four Cups of Wine
During the meal four cups of wine were consumed. Each cup stood for the four “I wills” in Exodus 6:6-7. Each cup had a symbolic meaning for Israel and each one also symbolizes what Jesus Christ has done to forgive our sins. God has made it possible for us to be delivered from the power and control of sin. God then starts the process of sanctification. When we die we experience our ultimate redemption. For all of this we can praise our God.
Say, therefore, to the sons of Israel, “I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage. I will also redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. Then I will take you for My people, and I will be your God; and you shall know that I am the LORD your God, who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. Exodus 6:6-7 (NASB)
Cup of Santification. It symbolized Israel’s deliverance from being under the burdens of the Egyptians.
Cup of Deliverance. It symbolized Israel’s deliverance from their bondage.
Cup of Redemption. It symbolized God’s promise to redeem Israel from with an outstretched arm.
Cup of Praise. It symbolized the fact that God took the Israelites to be His people.
The most significant part of the Seder meal occurs when the Yachatz is picked-up after the Karpas (parsley dipped in salt water) is eaten. The Yachatz is a single pouch containing three Matzah. The single pouch symbolizes unity. The middle Matzah is then removed, broken in half, and wrapped in a cloth. This is called the Afikomen. Jewish tradition says that the three Matzahs represent the Jewish people, the priests, the Levities, and the people. Jewish tradition does not know why the middle Matzah is broken. They do not know when this part of the Seder was established. However for Christians the symbolism is obvious. The Yachatz represents our one and only God and the three Matzah represent the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The breaking of the middle Matzah symbolizes the punishment and death of Jesus Christ. It is important to note that Matzah is stripped and has holes. One half of this broken Matzah is then wrapped and put away until just before the third cup. This symbolizes Jesus’ burial and resurrection on the third day. The Passover Seder is a great reminder of what Jesus Christ did for all of us. We can be delivered from the bondage of sin when we believe in Jesus Christ and ask Him to forgive our sins.
Should Christians observe the Passover?
On what day of the Jewish calendar does passover begin?
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Passover 2019: The meaning of the foods eaten during the Jewish festival
This year, the Jewish festival of Passover, or Pesach, as it is known in Hebrew, starts on Friday 19 April.
The observance commemorates Moses leading the Jewish people out of Egypt to the “promised land” of Canaan, following years of slavery.
Every year, Jewish families celebrate the first two nights of the festival by sitting around the Seder table and eating foods that symbolise the plight of their ancestors.
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These include matzah, which represents the unleavened bread the Jewish people took with them as they embarked on a 40-year journey through the desert.
Here’s everything you need to know about the meaning behind foods eaten during Passover:
Matzah (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
When the Jewish people fled Egypt, as the story of Passover goes, they didn’t have much time to prepare food for the long journey ahead.
They were forced to leave their homes with unleavened bread, as the bread they’d been making hadn’t had enough time to rise.
This is why matzah, an unleavened flatbread, is eaten during the festival.
Plain matzah is made from flour and water, although other variations of matzah may also contain ingredients including egg, milk and fruit extracts.
During the Seder meal, three pieces of matzah are placed on top of each other and covered with a napkin.
These three pieces of matzah represent three groups of Jewish people: the Kohanim (priests), the Levites (members of the Levi Hebrew tribe) and the Israelites, Jewish organisation Chabad explains.
The piece of matzah in the middle of the pile is broken, and half of it is hidden for an activity later on in the evening.
During the Seder night, Jewish children play a game with the aim of finding the hidden piece of matzah, called the afikoman.
The child who finds the afikoman at the end of the meal wins a prize.
The maror which appears on the Seder plate is bitter herbs, often in the form of the root vegetable horseradish.
This item represents the bitterness of the lives of the Jewish people who were enslaved and put through hard labour for years in Egypt.
In a verse in the Torah, the books of Jewish scripture, it states: “And they embittered their lives with hard labour, with mortar and with bricks and with all manner of labour in the field; any labour that they made them do was with hard labour.”
Romaine lettuce is also frequently used as maror, due to its bitter aftertaste.
A pasty concoction made from fruits and nuts, charoset is representative of the mortar the Jewish slaves used for their hard labour in ancient Egypt.
During the Seder meal, it’s tradition to eat a “Hillel sandwich”, made by combining charoset and maror within two pieces of matzah.
According to historian Dr Susan Weingarten, the tradition of eating charoset, which isn’t mentioned in the Torah, stems back to the ancient Romans.
Dr Weingarten states that the Romans believed that eating bitter foods was “bad for you”.
“I reckon that what happened was that ever since leaving Egypt, the Jews had been eating their maror and parsley. The Romans arrived and said: ‘You need to dip it into this charoset to stop them harming you’. So it became part of the service.”
Parsley (Getty Images)
Parsley, or another form of green vegetable, appears on the Seder plate for the opposite reason to the bitter herbs – to represent hope and renewal.
This is particularly poignant for the story of Passover, as the Jewish people were able to look forward to a new life in the “promised land” following years of slavery.
It’s custom to eat the parsley after dipping it in salt water, a symbol of the tears of the Jewish slaves.
Shank bone (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
The shank bone that appears on the Seder plate is usually that of a lamb, although bones from other animals, such as chickens, are sometimes used.
This represents the lamb that the Jewish people would sacrifice as a Passover offering at the Holy Temple in ancient Jerusalem.
Nowadays, the shank bone isn’t eaten during the festival meal.
When Jewish people read the story of Passover from a book called the Haggadah, they articulate how God inflicted terrible plagues upon Egypt, the last of which involved the deaths of all firstborn sons.
In order to protect the Jewish people from the last, deadly plague, God instructed Moses to tell the Jewish people to mark their front doors with lambs’ blood.
God then proceeded to “pass over” the houses that had been daubed with the blood when inflicting the plague, hence where the name for the festival comes from.
Hard-boiled egg (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
The hard-boiled egg eaten during the feast of Passover is a symbol of mourning.
Eggs are a symbol of mourning in Judaism because, as an object with a round shape, it represents the symbol of life, a component of which is death.
For some Jewish families, it’s tradition to eat a hard-boiled egg dipped in salt water, a symbol of the Jewish slaves’ tears, for the first course of their Seder meal.
Wine (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Wine plays an important role during the Passover proceedings.
At a certain point when reading the story of the festival from the Haggadah, the 10 plagues inflicted on Egypt by God are read out.
As the plagues are read out, Jewish people spill a small amount of wine for each one.
It’s widely believed that is done in recognition of the fact that while the Jewish people were liberated, the Egyptians suffered.
Throughout the Seder meal, four cups of wine are drunk, as a symbol of the Jewish people’s freedom.
It is custom to lean to the left while drinking these cups of wine, as only those who are free are able to recline while drinking wine.
During the feast, an extra cup of wine is placed on the table for the prophet Elijah.
This is done with the belief that one day, the prophet will signal the arrival of the Messiah.
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For everything you need to know about Passover, .
Passover is among the most widely celebrated Jewish holidays. While the particulars vary significantly from community to community, and even between individual families, there are many Passover customs that are observed in some form by large numbers of Jews.
Avoiding leavened bread
Passover is the strictest Jewish holiday when it comes to food. For eight days (seven in Israel), Jews traditionally avoid eating food made from leavened grain. Most significantly, this means avoiding any bread or bread products, with some Jews additionally abstaining from any grain product, including beer, pasta, oatmeal and most liquors.
Ridding the house of hametz
In addition to not eating bread, some Jews completely rid their houses of bread products — known in Hebrew as hametz. Those who observe this custom strictly will clean their house thoroughly to ensure even the crumbs behind the couch are removed. Grain products that are too difficult or expensive to remove will sometimes be kept at home but sold to a non-Jew for the duration of the holiday.
Fast of the First Born
Some Jews have the practice that the first born in every family fasts on the eve of Passover from sunrise to sunset. This fast is the only one in the Jewish calendar that applies only to one segment of the Jewish community and was established to remember how God spared the first born sons of Israel while killing the first born sons of the Egyptians. Some Jews have the custom of avoiding the fast by holding a festive meal early in the day to mark the completion of some portion of Torah study.
The centerpiece of the Passover holiday is the seder, a ceremonial feast held at home on the first night of the holiday (some Jews who live outside Israel hold two seders, one on each of the first two nights.) The seder meal is intended to dramatically retell the story of the liberation of the ancient Israelites from slavery in Egypt and is laden with symbolic foods and rituals, including the eating of the bitter herbs (symbolizing the hardship of slavery) and the dipping of a green vegetable into salt water (symbolizing the bounty of the spring season). As with nearly all Jewish observances, the seder is preceded by the lighting of candles and the blessing of wine.
Dubbed “the bread of affliction,” matzah is an unleavened cracker, usually made from wheat, that is baked quickly (in under 18 minutes) before the batter has a chance to rise. It is eaten at the seder and throughout the holiday in remembrance of the haste in which the Jews left Egypt, leaving no time for their bread to rise. Matzah is the consummate symbol of Passover, which is sometimes referred to in Hebrew as Chag Hamatzot — the holiday of the matzah.
Like all Jewish festivals, Passover has a special synagogue service that includes specific Torah readings for the holiday and the chanting of Song of Songs, the poetic work attributed to King Solomon. The memorial service Yizkor is also traditionally held in the synagogue on the final day of the holiday, one of only four times during the year it is recited.
During the first two and last two days of Passover, many traditionally observant Jews will abstain from most of the same activities they avoid on the Sabbath — no driving, working, using electricity, lighting fires or spending money. On the intermediary days of the holiday — known as hol hamoed — those restrictions do not apply. Many Jewish schools close for the full duration of the holiday.
Prep for Passover like a pro with this special email series. and you’ll receive a series of helpful, informative, and beautiful emails that will help you get the most out of the holiday.
Pronounced: KHOLE-ha-moe-EHD, Origin: Hebrew, the intermediate days of the week-long festivals of Passover and Sukkot, falling between the first two days of each holiday, and the last two days of each holiday.
Pronounced: YIZZ-kur, Origin: Hebrew, literally “May God remember,” Yizkor is a prayer service in memory of the dead, which is held on Yom Kippur and on the last day of each of the three festivals, Passover, Shavuot and Shemini Atzeret.
Pronounced: khah-METZ or KHUH-metz, Origin: Hebrew, bread or any food that has been leavened or contains a leavening agent. Hametz is prohibited on Passover.
Pronounced: SAY-der, Origin: Hebrew, literally “order”; usually used to describe the ceremonial meal and telling of the Passover story on the first two nights of Passover. (In Israel, Jews have a seder only on the first night of Passover.)
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The Torah couldn’t make things any clearer. From Exodus 12:14 and 15: “This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the LORD; throughout your generations, as statute forever, you shall keep it as a feast. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread. On the first day you shall remove leaven out of your houses, for if anyone eats what is leavened, from the first day until the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel.”
But in the centuries since, food has gotten a lot more complicated, and the Jews who fled Egypt were fruitful and multiplied, melding their own traditions with regional customs. Today the rules governing keeping kosher for Passover aren’t as clear as they were in ancient Judea. Erik’s explainer on the Lenten fast taught me much about the Catholic tradition, so I’ll repay the favor with this guide for my Gentile friends on how American Jews keep kosher for Passover. I should preface this section by saying that even among the most observant Jews, there are disagreements over what is and what is not kosher for Passover. There are many foods, like jellies or butter, that should be considered allowable given their ingredients, but the equipment used to produce them is not cleaned and inspected by rabbinic observers. This is why you may see specially wrapped or branded products of everyday goods for those Jews who look for that extra degree of precaution. Consider this a brief slice of a very complicated discussion.
The Obvious No-Nos:
Unfortunately, these rules also mean that all beer and most liquor is forbidden. The only alcohol allowed is wine, of which there are kosher-for-Passover varieties.
It is customary to clean all the chometz out of one’s house. Some totally cleanse the house, others board up closets, others sell the grains to their non-Jewish neighbors (you can help next year!) and buy it back at the end of the holiday, others sell their chometz on the Internet to a stranger and buy it back even though the food never moves.
The Generally Assumed No-Nos:
Rice and beans. The realm of kitniyot (legumes) is among the grayest of areas. Joan Nathan is the Barefoot Contessa of Jewish cooking and she says it best in her book Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France:
In the Middle Ages, rice, lentils, chickpeas, and fava beans were all ground into flour, which in that state could be confused with the true grains. The list continued to grow after corn and beans came to the Old World from the New. In France, where mustard seeds grow, mustard was added to the list, because the seeds could be intertwined and confused with other plants.
The confusion principle is largely the reason why many American Jews abstained from eating any corn or rice products on Passover for decades. According to Nathan, a biblical ruling was made in the 12th and 13th centuries that “any grain that can be cooked and baked like matzo confused with the biblical grains.” Therefore, not kosher for Passover…. until last year, when, as reported by Danny Lewis for Smithsonian.com, the Conservative movement declared that kitinyot were now rabinically approved for consumption during Passover. Whether this changed the ingrained habits of observant Jews remains to be seen, but the shift was noteworthy nonetheless.
The anti-legume tradition has been mostly maintained by Ashkenazic Jews, or those whose ancestors come from eastern Europe. Pre-Inquisition Jews from Spain never followed these rules, and thus Sephardim, who by definition are Jews descended from those who escaped Spain but also include those who are from South America, Asia, the Middle East and Africa, do not either. The vast majority of American Jews, 95 percent or more, are Ashkenazic.
Even now in an era of detailed FDA-mandated labeling, where the confusion Nathan wrote about is nigh impossible, the tradition continues. This is why you see the fabled “Mexican Coke” make an appearance each spring. Made with cane sugar and not high-fructose corn syrup, the imported soda is good to go. (Relatedly, what tastes better? Regular Coke or Kosher for Passover Coke? The New Republic did a taste test.)
Matzo. For reasons that are unknown to most Jews, some people willingly eat matzo at other times of the year. These matzo boxes are labeled “not kosher for Passover” and should not be eaten as a part of observing the holiday. The difference? Rabbinic supervision to ensure that any matzo made for Passover is untainted by any leavening agents. There is also a debate over whether egg matzo is allowed. While clearly being verboten for the Passover seder (another Torah passage states that only the flour and water version may be used during the ritual), eating egg matzo during the rest of the week is left up to the observant.
Quinoa. The New York Times had a good wrap-up of the quinoa loophole, which is rather ingenious. Since the grain is a relative newcomer to Western diets, the grain wholly bypassed not only the Talmudic scholars but the “confusion principle” as explained above. Ashkenazic rabbis never had the chance to exclude it from the holiday, and so by default it became kosher for Passover. Now concerns are being raised over whether the manufacturing process is clean of any of the banned grains. The Orthodox Union, the authority on such matters, has declared quinoa allowable for consumption during the holiday. The story of how they came to that decision, from NPR:
“This rabbi went all the way to Bolivia and Peru,” Elefant reports. “He saw that quinoa grows near the top of the mountain and grain grows near the bottom of the mountain.” Thus, there was no chance for the intermingling that might happen with crops planted near wheat. Another plus for quinoa, says Elefant: “Many rabbis are of the opinion that anything that wasn’t part of the original custom is not included in the custom.”
All that was left for the rabbis was inspection of factories that package quinoa to see if forbidden grains are processed on the same equipment that processes it. And some passed. Those factories that got the all-clear now produce quinoa that will bear the OU-P symbol, meaning they’re kosher for Passover.
Most everything else. All in all, keeping kosher for Passover isn’t all that difficult, especially if you have experience with the Atkins or Paleo diets. I find myself eating more healthy meals this week than usual, as I am forced to cook at home and use copious fruits and vegetables to fill out my diet. If I’m cooking meat, I make my own marinades or sauces, and if I’m eating a salad, my own dressings. Don’t put shrimp salad or a bacon cheeseburger on your matzo—the normal kosher laws still pertain: no shellfish, pork products or mixing of meat and cheese is allowed.
Cigarettes: According to the Associated Press, a rabbinic group in Israel has, for the first time, declared certain cigarettes as Kosher for Passover.
One last note:
If you re-read the passage from Exodus, you’ll notice that it declares that the holiday should be observed for seven days, as is done in modern day Israel, and not the eight customarily observed by American Jews. In the era before standardized calendars, Jews in the Diaspora (any area outside of Israel) added an extra day to ensure that their holiday overlapped with the official celebration. This is also why American Jews have two nights of seders, where in Israel they only have one.
Beans And Rice For Passover? A Divisive Question Gets The Rabbis’ OK
A Passover Seder table. During Passover, Jews avoid leavened bread. But whether legumes, corn and rice are OK has long been a point of contention among Jews of European and Middle Eastern ancestry. Now, rabbis have weighed in. Reza/Getty Images hide caption
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A Passover Seder table. During Passover, Jews avoid leavened bread. But whether legumes, corn and rice are OK has long been a point of contention among Jews of European and Middle Eastern ancestry. Now, rabbis have weighed in.
As a Latina who married into a Jewish family, I’ve long lobbied my in-laws to include beans and rice on the Passover menu. The holiday is a time when Jews avoid leavened foods in commemoration of their biblical exodus from Egypt — when they had to flee so fast, they couldn’t even let the bread rise.
But beans and rice aren’t leavened, I’ve argued, so why not include them in the Seder meal? The answer I’ve long gotten from my mother-in-law: tradition.
You see, like many American Jews, my mother-in-law is of European ancestry, or Ashkenazi. And by tradition, Ashkenazi Jews don’t eat legumes, rice, seeds and corn on Passover.
As Rabbi Amy Levin tells NPR’s Scott Simon, the custom banning my beloved rice and beans — as well as foods like lentils, edamame and popcorn — dates back to the 13th century. She says “it has been controversial right from the start … simply because the custom prohibits foods that are, according to Torah law (which is like, the Jewish Constitution) permitted to be eaten.”
And custom is a powerful force at the Passover table. The ritual foods eaten during the Seder — like bitter herbs, which serve to recall the hard times Jews endured as slaves in ancient Egypt — are edible reminders of Jewish history and identity.
But this year, as I lobby my mother-in-law yet again, I’ve got rabbis in my corner. Last December, the Rabbinical Assembly — an international group of rabbis within the Conservative denomination of Judaism — ruled that it is in fact OK to add rice, beans and corn and other so-called kitniyot to the Passover table. For Ashkenazic Jews, it’s the first time in eight centuries that these foods are welcome during the holiday.
Sephardic Jews, whose roots trace back to the Iberian Peninsula, North Africa and the Middle East, have long considered these foods kosher for Passover. (Which makes sense, given that chickpeas and other legumes feature prominently in the Israeli diet.)
In fact, Levin, who co-wrote the opinion, says that America’s Jewish community actually began as a Sephardic community in the 17th and 18th century.
“But by the 19th century and 20th century, with huge waves of immigration from Europe, the American Jewish community became a heavily Ashkenazi Jewish community,” she says.
That has been changing in the past 15 to 20 years, she says. During that time, “a lot of Jews from Israel of Sephardic background — the part of the Jewish world that has eaten rice and beans and corn for Passover and lentils all along — have come to settle in the States. And so the question has come up as to whether it’s appropriate to maintain these separate customs.
“I’ve always had at least one or two couples that are — we call them Ashkephards — meaning that one person is from an Ashkenazi background, and one person is from a Sephardic background,” Levin says. “And then they’re sitting at the Seder table, looking at each other, like, ‘Are we eating the rice or aren’t we eating the rice?’ “
Armed with the rabbis’ new ruling, I once again broached the subject with my mother-in-law just before this year’s Seder. Her answer surprised me: “Sure, why not?”
How is this night different from any other night indeed!
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Passover, or Pesach in Hebrew, is one of the Jewish religion’s most sacred and widely observed holidays. Passover commemorates the story of the Israelites’ departure from ancient Egypt, which appears in the Hebrew Bible’s books of Exodus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, among other texts. Jews observe the weeklong festival with a number of important rituals, including a traditional Passover meals known as a seder, the removal of leavened products from their home, the substitution of matzo for bread and the retelling of the exodus tale.
The Passover Story
According to the Hebrew Bible, Jewish settlement in ancient Egypt first occurs when Joseph, a son of the patriarch Jacob and founder of one of the 12 tribes of Israel, moves his family there during a severe famine in their homeland of Canaan.
For many years the Israelites live in harmony in the province of Goshen, but as their population grows the Egyptians begin to see them as a threat. After the death of Joseph and his brothers, the story goes, a particularly hostile pharaoh orders their enslavement and the systematic drowning of their firstborn sons in the Nile.
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One of these doomed infants is rescued by the pharaoh’s daughter, given the name Moses (meaning “one who is pulled out”) and adopted into the Egyptian royal family.
When he reaches adulthood, Moses becomes aware of his true identity and the Egyptians’ brutal treatment of his fellow Hebrews. He kills an Egyptian slave master and escapes to the Sinai Peninsula, where he lives as a humble shepherd for 40 years.
One day, however, Moses receives a command from God to return to Egypt and free his kin from bondage, according to the Hebrew bible. Along with his brother Aaron, Moses approaches the reigning pharaoh (who is unnamed in the biblical version of the story) several times, explaining that the Hebrew God has requested a three-day leave for his people so that they may celebrate a feast in the wilderness.
When the pharaoh refuses, God unleashes 10 plagues on the Egyptians, including turning the Nile River red with blood, diseased livestock, boils, hailstorms and three days of darkness, culminating in the slaying of every firstborn son by an avenging angel.
The Israelites, however, mark the doorframes of their homes with lamb’s blood so that the angel of death will recognize and “pass over” each Jewish household.
Terrified of further punishment, the Egyptians convince their ruler to release the Israelites, and Moses quickly leads them out of Egypt. The pharaoh changes his mind, however, and sends his soldiers to retrieve the former slaves.
As the Egyptian army approaches the fleeing Jews at the edge of the Red Sea, a miracle occurs: God causes the sea to part, allowing Moses and his followers to cross safely, then closes the passage and drowns the Egyptians.
According to the Hebrew Bible, the Jews—now numbering in the hundreds of thousands—then trek through the Sinai desert for 40 tumultuous years before finally reaching their ancestral home in Canaan, later known as the Land of Israel.
Questions of Historical Accuracy
For centuries, scholars have been debating the details and historical merit of the events commemorated during the Passover holiday. Despite numerous attempts, historians and archaeologists have failed to corroborate the tale of the Jews’ enslavement in and mass exodus from Egypt.
Although the ancient Egyptians kept thorough records, no mention is made of an Israelite community within their midst or any calamities resembling the 10 biblical plagues. There is also no evidence of large encampments in the Sinai Peninsula, the fabled site of the Jews’ wandering, or any sudden fluctuation in Israel’s archaeological record that would indicate the departure and return of a large population.
A handful of scholars, including the first-century Jewish historian Josephus, have suggested a link between the Israelites and the Hyksos, a mysterious Semitic people—possibly from Canaan—who controlled lower Egypt for more than 100 years before their expulsion during the 16th century B.C.
Most modern academics, however, have dismissed this theory due to chronological conflicts and a lack of similarity between the two cultures.
One of the most important Passover rituals for observant Jews is removing all leavened food products (known as chametz) from their home before the holiday begins and abstaining from them throughout its duration.
Instead of bread, religious Jews eat a type of flatbread called matzo. According to tradition, this is because the Hebrews fled Egypt in such haste that there was no time for their bread to rise, or perhaps because matzo was lighter and easier to carry through the desert than regular bread.
On the first two nights of Passover, families and friends gather for a religious feast known as a seder.
During the meal, the story of the exodus from Egypt is read aloud from a special text called the Haggadah (Hebrew for “telling”), and rituals corresponding to various aspects of the narrative are performed. For example, vegetables are dipped into salt water representing the tears Jews shed during their time as slaves, and bitter herbs (usually horseradish) symbolizing the unpleasant years of their bondage are eaten.
A seder plate at the center of the table contains Passover foods with particular significance to the exodus story, including matzo, bitter herbs, a lamb shankbone and a mixture of fruit, nuts and wine known as charoset, which represents the mortar Jews used while bonding bricks as slaves in Egypt.
Other typical menu items include matzo kugel (a pudding made from matzo and apples), poached fish patties called gefilte fish and chicken soup with matzo balls.
Children play an important role in the seder and are expected to take part in many of its customs. At one point during the meal, the youngest child present recites the four questions, which ask what distinguishes this special night from all other nights.
In many households, young people also enjoy participating in the traditional hunt for the afikomen, a piece of matzo that is hidden early in the evening. The finder is rewarded with a prize or money.
The story of Passover is traditionally told over the Passover Seder and is sprinkled with lots of singing, reclining, wine drinking and gefilte fish-eating. The tale depicts the Jewish people’s enslavement in Egypt and their eventual escape, and is told with the help of a guidebook called a Haggadah.
Below is a very rough outline of the story. Biblical scholars will argue about the details, but as long as you get the overarching plot and themes, you’ll be prepared for a Seder.
The story begins before the Jews were slaves in Egypt, when Joseph, son of Jacob and Rachel, worked as an adviser to the Pharaoh.
Joseph was able to predict an oncoming famine, which gave the Pharoah time to prepare and save his people. Because of his deed, when Joseph’s family came to Egypt they were invited to stay and live in peace for a number of generations. The descendents of his family came to be known as the Israelites.
But as the generations multiplied, and Joseph and the Pharaoh passed away, the agreement was forgotten. The new Pharaoh became alarmed at the large numbers of Israelites in Egypt, and decided to enslave them. He later issued a decree to drown all newborn Israelite boys in the river.
One Hebrew couple, Yocheved and Amram, put their baby son in a basket and placed it in the Nile, hoping that he would escape death. The baby was quickly discovered by the Pharaoh’s daughter and adopted. The princess named the boy Moses, or “he who was drawn from the water.”
Moses grew up with the Pharaoh, and was raised as a member of the royal family until he witnessed an Egyptian beating up an Israelite slave. Full of outrage, Moses beat the Egyptian to death and was cast out from Egypt as punishment.
After a bit of wandering, Moses settled East of Egypt, married and became a shepherd. Meanwhile, the Israelites’ situation in Egypt worsened and they called to God for help. He responded by reaching out to Moses.
While tending his flocks one day, Moses heard a voice coming from a flaming bush. The voice identified itself as God and told Moses to go and save his people, and to tell the Pharoah to “Let My people go, so that they may serve Me.”
A Jewish man transfers the Matzoth (unleavened bread) to be baked on March 25 at a bakery in Kfar Habad near Tel Aviv. To commemorate their ancestors’ plight, religious Jews do not eat leavened food products throughout Passover. JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images
Moses set off with his brother, Aaron, and appealed to the Pharaoh who refused to listen and worsened the conditions for the Israelites.
After several more unsuccessful diplomatic attempts, God began to send a series of plagues, including blood, frogs, lice, flies, cattle-plague, boils, hail, locusts and darkness onto the people of Egypt, but none of them convinced the Pharaoh to set the Israelites free.
Finally, the Israelites were told to bring a “passover offering” of a lamb or goat to God and to put its blood on their doorposts because those homes would be passed over when he inflicted the final plague, the killing of the firstborn children.
The harshest of plagues worked in convincing the Pharoah to let the Israelites go. But Moses wasn’t convinced of the Pharoah’s conviction, and instructed his people to pack their things and leave as quickly as possible. The Israelites left in such a rush that they didn’t have enough time to properly rise their dough, and for this reason Jewish people eat flat bread, or Matzah, on Passover.
When the Israelites reached the Red Sea, they realized that they had been tricked by the Egyptians and were surrounded by Pharaoh’s soldiers. God instructed Moses to raise his staff toward the sea, and it parted, allowing their escape. When the Israelites were safely through, the sea closed, drowning the soldiers chasing them.
The story of Passover is a tradition handed down from one generation of Jews to the next through reading the Haggadah, and is often paired with a speech relating the story of Exodus to recent news events or national affairs. In this way, the story is kept alive and relevant to the current day.
Seder, (Hebrew: “order”) religious meal served in Jewish homes on the 15th and 16th of the month of Nisan to commence the festival of Passover (Pesaḥ). Though Passover commemorates the Exodus, the historical deliverance of the Jewish people from Egyptian bondage in the days of Moses (13th century bce), Jews are ever mindful that this event was a prelude to God’s revelation on Mount Sinai. For each participant, therefore, the seder is an occasion to relive the Exodus as a personal spiritual event. The religious nature of the seder with its carefully prescribed ritual makes the dinner quite unlike family dinners held on civil holidays. Reform Jews and Jews in Israel omit the second seder because they limit Passover to seven days.
A family at a seder, the ritual meal held to commence the Jewish festival of Passover.age fotostock/SuperStock Read More on This Topic Jewish religious year: Pilgrim festivals …each family partakes of the seder (“order of service); i.e., an elaborate festival meal in which every ritual is regulated by the…
The head of the family, having usually donned a white ritual gown (kittel), begins the ceremony by sanctifying the holiday with a benediction (Qiddush) over a cup of wine. In all, four cups of wine (arbaʿ kosot) will be drunk at certain intervals.
After all have washed their hands, the master of the seder presents celery or another raw vegetable (karpas) dipped in vinegar or salt water to all participants. Then a shank bone, symbolic of the Paschal lamb eaten in ancient times, and (commonly) a hard-boiled egg, symbolic of God’s loving kindness (or, according to some, a mournful reminder of the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem), are removed from the seder plate, while all recite a prayer.
After a second cup of wine is poured, the youngest child asks four standard questions about the unusual ceremonies: “Why does this night differ from all other nights? For on all other nights we eat either leavened or unleavened bread; why on this night only unleavened bread? On all other nights we eat all kinds of herbs; why on this night only bitter herbs? On all other nights we need not dip our herbs even once; why on this night must we dip them twice? On all other nights we eat either sitting up or reclining; why on this night do we all recline?”
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The prepared answers, recited by all in unison, give a spiritual interpretation to the customs, even though some aspects of the feast were doubtless copied from Greco-Roman banquets. In essence, the narration (Haggada) is the story of the Exodus. This unique element of the seder celebration keeps alive sacred Jewish traditions that are repeated by succeeding generations at every seder meal.
All again wash their hands, then consume unleavened bread (matza) and bitter herbs (maror) dipped into a mixture of crushed fruits and wine, signifying that freedom and spiritual progress are the reward of suffering and sacrifice. At this point the meal is eaten.
When all have eaten and recited grace, a third cup of wine is poured to express thanksgiving to God. As the ritual moves toward its conclusion, psalms of praise (Hallel, previously read in part) are recited in unison and a fourth cup of wine is poured to acknowledge God’s loving providence. Some add a fifth cup of wine (which is not drunk) in honour of Elijah, whose appearance at some future seder will signify the advent of the Messiah. Often folk songs are sung after the meal.
Passover Seder Dinner
Passover is the Jewish festival in celebration of the Jews’ freedom from slavery and flight from Egypt. Although traditions vary throughout the world, the basics are as follows: The holiday lasts a total of seven or eight days (depending on where it’s being celebrated), and the first night of Passover begins with a ceremonial dinner, called a Seder, where the story of the exodus is told.
The food and wine customs of a given Seder are elaborate, and they differ between regions and families, but some factors remain constant.
- Each participant in the Seder drinks four cups of wine throughout the evening, at fixed points, for the four promises of redemption associated with the exodus story.
- The major dietary restriction during the week of Passover is the ban of leavened bread, or chometz. Chometz is as bread made from (wheat, oat, spelt, rye, or barley) flour that has been in contact with water for more than 18 minutes and therefore had a chance to rise. Before Passover, the house is traditionally cleansed of chometz.
Fundamental to the Seder table is the Seder plate, which has on it the following items:
- Zeroah, a lamb’s shankbone symbolizing the ancient Passover sacrifice
- Beitzah, a roasted egg symbolizing the temple sacrifice and the continuing cycle of life
- Haroset, a paste of fruit and nuts symbolizing the mortar used to build the pyramid of the pharaohs
- Mar’or, a bitter herb (like horseradish) to represent the bitterness of slavery
- Karpas, a green vegetable (usually parsley) representing spring
- A bowl of salt water to dip the karpas symbolizing the slaves’ tears
Some traditions also include chazeret, a second bitter herb, usually the roots of romaine lettuce. Also necessary are three matzos (unleavened bread, symbolizing the haste of the flight from Egypt — there was no time for the bread to rise), either wrapped in cloth or covered, and broken and eaten at set points throughout the evening.
The actual Seder meal is also quite variable. Traditions among Ashkenazi Jews generally include gefilte fish (poached fish dumplings), matzo ball soup, brisket or roast chicken, potato kugel (somewhat like a casserole) and tzimmes, a stew of carrots and prunes, sometimes including potatoes or sweet potatoes.
A Guide to Eating on Passover
You know how the food you eat can sometimes trigger memories? Jewish tradition knows this too, and a kosher-for-Passover diet is a yearly reminder of the Jewish people’s distant past as slaves in Egypt.
During Passover we eat matzah, or unleavened bread, and avoid eating chametz (leaven), to remember our past and celebrate our freedom. Many of us also avoid eating kitniyot. Read on to learn what it is, what it means, and how we approach all of it during this holiday.
What is chametz?
Chametz (“food that has leavened”) refers to food containing any amount of wheat, barley, rye, oats, and spelt, that has leavened, or “puffed up.”
Isn’t matzah often made from wheat?
That’s true, matzah is made from wheat. But, when matzah is made, the wheat flour is kept absolutely dry until it’s mixed with water and immediately baked. Technically, it takes 18 minutes for flour to ferment and rise, so matzah must be prepared and baked in fewer than 18 minutes.
Ok. Now, what’s kitniyot?
Kitniyot (“small things”) includes legumes, beans, peas, rice, millet, corn, and seeds. Many Ashkenazi Jews (Jews of central and eastern European descent) choose not to eat kitniyot on Passover.
Why don’t people eat kitniyot on Passover?
There have been many reasons that Ashkenazic communities have refrained from eating kitniyot on Passover. For example, there was a concern that because kitniyot can be ground to make flour and then baked, one could mistakenly assume that their neighbor was eating chametz. There was also concern that chametz grain might get mixed up with kitniyot if they were stored in close proximity. This kitniyot prohibition was not accepted by most Sephardic Jews (Jews of Spanish, Middle Eastern, and North African descent).
Didn’t I read somewhere that Reform Jews can eat kitniyot on Passover?
You likely did read that somewhere! Actually, three groups of Rabbis in the recent past have met and, independent of each other, ruled that both Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews should be permitted to eat rice, corn, and kitniyot during Passover. These groups were the Responsa Committee of the Reform Jewish Movement (a responsa is a rabbinic decision), the Responsa Committee of the Israeli Conservative Movement, and the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards.
These rabbinical committees determined that the prohibition of eating rice, beans, and kitniyot is in direct contradiction to the opinion of all the sages of the Mishnah and Talmud (except one), and also contradicts the theory, as well as the practice of more than 50 post-Talmudic Sages. Opposition to the ban on eating kitniyot dates back to 13th-century France, when one rabbi called it “a mistaken company” and another calling it a “foolish custom.”
Still, it’s a personal decision, and many Reform Jews choose to abstain from eating kitniyot on Passover. (Check out this blog post about choosing foods to make your Passover meaningful.)
OK, I get that there’s a lot that I can’t eat. But what can I eat?
If you’ve been to a Passover seder, you know that Passover can still be a delicious celebration. Visit our Passover Recipes page for some kosher for Passover meal inspiration, and watch the video below. Chag sameach!
This guide was compiled from existing content written by Rabbi Eric Berk, Rabbi Paul Kipnes, Marcia Louchheim, and Rabbi Thomas Louchheim
Among the most common Passover traditions is abstaining from foods made from fermented grains. Below is a list of food groups some Jews refrain from eating on the holiday.
Bread and other leavened grains
This is the big no-no on Passover. Traditionally, the category of forbidden foods on Passover — known as hametz — was defined as the fermented products of five grains: wheat, spelt, barley, oats and rye. This means no bread, rolls, pasta, flour tortillas, or cookies, though there are commercial alternatives for all these made from almond flour or other substitutes.
Oatmeal is derived from oats, one of the five forbidden grains.
Rice falls into a category known as kitniyot, which was adopted as an added stringency by Ashkenazi Jews. If you’re Sephardic, or follow the Conservative movement’s 2015 ruling on the subject, then rice is fine on Passover. Other foods in this category are beans, peanuts, corn and lentils. Oils that are derived from those products are also prohibited.
Beer is made from fermented grain (typically barley).
Whiskey, scotch, bourbon and rye are all made from fermented grains and are therefore prohibited on Passover. Liquors made from other products — like sugar cane or potatos — can theoretically be kosher for Passover, though there aren’t many commercially available that are certified as such.
Because processed are made in factories that often produce a wide range of foods, including those traditionally prohibited on Passover, some Jews will only eat packaged foods that are explicitly certified kosher for Passover. The Orthodox Union maintains an extensive online list of approved processed foods as well as a searchable database of processed foods that may be used without a kosher for Passover designation.
Though this classic Jewish comfort food is a quintessential holiday delicacy for many Jews, a small number of Ashkenazi Jews who observe the custom of gebrochts do not eat them on Passover. Gebrochts refers to any matzah product that has been soaked in water. Those who observe this custom will sometimes substitute potato starch in their matzah ball recipe.
Pronounced: khah-METZ or KHUH-metz, Origin: Hebrew, bread or any food that has been leavened or contains a leavening agent. Hametz is prohibited on Passover.
Pronounced: kit-nee-YOTE, Origin: Hebrew, meaning “little things,” the term here refers to legumes, corn, rice and other non-hametz foods prohibited for use on Passover by some Ashkenazic rabbis in the medieval period. Many Sephardic Jews (and Conservative Jews) do allow them on Passover.
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Whether or not Shakespeare was right about all the world being a stage, the seder table on Passover – laden as it is not just with chicken soup but also with many symbolic representations of a larger theme – sure functions like one. The players, as Will would have it, are everyone sitting around the table. And the main prop? That would be the seder plate.
What exactly is a seder plate?
Technically it could be any plate on which you place the key symbolic foods of the seder, but many people use a plate made specifically for the seder, which you can get in just about any store selling Judaica. You only need one per seder, though some people make more for a large seder.
Does it matter where the foods are placed on the plate?
There are different opinions about where each item should be placed, and even how many items should be on the plate. But since seder plates generally label which food goes where, most people just put each item in the designated spot on the plate.
What goes on a seder plate?
There are at least five foods that go on the seder plate: shank bone (zeroa), egg (beitzah), bitter herbs (maror), vegetable (karpas) and a sweet paste called haroset. Many seder plates also have room for a sixth, hazeret (another form of the bitter herbs). All of them are meant to remind us of the primary theme of Passover: the Jewish people’s transition from slavery to freedom. There is generally only a small, symbolic amount of food on the seder plate, with additional dishes of karpas, maror and haroset set out for people to eat from during the seder.
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What does each food on the seder plate symbolize?
Shank bone (zeroa): This is a roasted bone with some meat on it. Although zeroa is often described as the shank bone of a lamb, other bones work too – such as a roasted chicken wing, chicken leg or part of the neck. The emphasis is less on the exact body part and more on the commemoration of the Paschal sacrifice, which was the most important part of celebrating Passover in the time of the Temple.
The zeroa is also seen as an allusion to the “outstretched arm” (zeroa netuyah) with which the Bible says God took the Jews out of Egypt. Unlike most of the symbols of seder night, this one is for looking at, not eating.
Egg (beitzah): The egg commemorates the Hagigah sacrifice that was eaten with the Paschal sacrifice on seder night during Temple times, though it was animals, not eggs, that were brought to the Temple. One reason commonly suggested for using an egg to represent the sacrifice is that eggs – whose circularity is seen as representing the cycle of life – are a typical mourner’s food, and thus remind us that we are mourning the destruction of the Temple, as a result of which we cannot bring the Passover sacrifices.
The egg is traditionally boiled and then roasted, for that charred, sacrifice-y look. (Note that the seder plate egg is different from the hard-boiled eggs that many have a custom to eat once it’s time for the meal to begin.)
Vegetable (karpas): Just about any vegetable may be used for karpas, as long as it’s not one that can be used for bitter herbs. It should be served either cooked or raw, whichever is the normal method of eating it. Vegetables that are commonly used for karpas include parsley, celery and potatoes. During the seder, the karpas is dipped into salt water, reminiscent of the tears of the Israelite slaves, before eating.
Bitter herbs (maror and hazeret): Mar means “bitter,” and the maror is meant to remind us of the bitterness of slavery. The two main foods customarily used for maror are lettuce –especially Romaine lettuce (which eventually turns bitter and is commonly used as maror in Israel) – and grated horseradish, which is commonly used in many Jewish communities outside of Israel. Some seder plates have a spot for each of those items, and you can put horseradish in one of them and lettuce in the other.
Horseradish appears to have become a popular choice for maror because it was easier to obtain than lettuce in Germany and Eastern Europe, but hazeret, a plant that scholars identify as lettuce (yet, confusingly, is the modern Hebrew term for horseradish), is the first of five plants listed in the Mishna as a food that can be used for maror.
Haroset: The word is thought to come from heres, meaning “clay,” and the sweet reddish or brownish paste (the color depends, of course, on what you put in it) is meant to symbolize the clay the Israelite slaves used to make the bricks and mortar for their Egyptian overlords. The sweetness also offsets the taste of the bitter herbs, much as our freedom offsets the taste of remembered slavery. There are many different recipes for haroset, but the classic Ashkenazi version involves apples, walnuts and red wine, while many Sephardi recipes call for dates or other dried fruit.
Shlomit Tulgan made this Seder plate from clay for our children’s exhibition on Passover; Jewish Museum Berlin, photo: Jens Ziehe.
It’s Seder and the family is getting together. Some are traveling from farther away, others are flourishing right here. At the table are escarole, lettuce, parsley, kohlrabi, Belgian endive, and dandelion. But what about horseradish and red radish? They’re both late this year.
The story of the plants and their fruits that have particular meaning on the Seder plate at Passover could be told in various similar ways. They all grow in the Diaspora Garden, which you can visit inside the W. Michael Blumenthal Academy at the Jewish Museum. It features a kind of green sculpture by the landscape architects le balto that came into being through a collaboration with the museum, particularly with our education department. As a botanist and the officially-designated garden guardian I make my rounds through all four long plateaux of beds, plucking a brown leaflet here, bending new shoots in the right direction there. I enjoy the strawberry’s first leaves and check to see which of the bitter plants made it through the winter. The horehound didn’t survive so I’ll be asking the gardeners to plant a new one.
During our 2016 school holiday program the children used the Diaspora Garden too; Jewish Museum Berlin, photo: Tanja Petersen.
Bitter herbs make a double appearance on the Seder plate, since the commemoration of slavery in Egypt and the bitterness connected with it is an important narrative. Three different seasonal holidays — Passover, the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot), and the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot) — recall the exodus from Egypt, the transmission of the commandments, and the years of wandering in the wilderness. From the beginning of their existence Jews have been dealing with a life between the poles of diaspora and homeland. Thus since time immemorial, the Jewish community has been grappling with the question of how, in the diaspora, to substitute accustomed but often unobtainable foods and ritual dishes with available options — and so to extend and update these traditions.
This illustration of bitter herbs was produced in 2017 for the Diaspora Garden in the Jewish Museum Berlin; drawing: Nils Hoff.
The Mishnah cites five bitter herbs: Romaine lettuce, thistle, what’s known as endive or chicory, eryngo, and other “salads.” The leaves are supposed to be enjoyed fresh or wilted, but shouldn’t date back to the previous year. Another translation calls them the “vegetables with which people fulfill their Passover obligation: lettuce, endive, chervil, eryngo, and oxtongue” (from Die Mischna. Festzeiten Seder Mo’ed, translated and edited by Michael Krupp).
Horseradish isn’t mentioned here. It belongs, together with other well-known salad leaves like arugula and mustard, to the crucifers, while most of the others mentioned in the Mishnah (eryngo, chicory, thistle, and dandelion) are asters or “composites” — part of the Asteraceae family. It gets even more confusing when you consider that horseradish (Armoracia rusticana) actually belongs to the extended family of crucifers, but isn’t closely related to the other types of radish, of the genus Raphanus, like the little red radish for instance. At Passover, it’s a bit more like a brother-in-law who married into the family.
How did horseradish get onto the Seder plate? After all, it’s not bitter, it’s hot. In fact it didn’t always belong with the chosen dishes of the Seder. It has, however, been a part of the story of Ashkenazi Judaism since the Middle Ages. In Hebrew the word maror is often there on the Seder plate, though maror (bitter) can indicate horseradish or watercress. The second symbolic food, chazeret, is represented by another bitter herb.
Radish was first mentioned in the rabbinical literature in the middle of the 12th century and its use discussed by scholars for two hundred years. The history of horseradish on the Seder plate and its authorization as one of the five bitter herbs specified by the Mishnah reflects Jews’ mobility and the founding of growing Jewish communities in the Western and Eastern European diaspora between the 12th and 18th centuries. For the prescribed plants were often simply unavailable or the consumption of fresh, new leaves ever less likely, the further one went into the climatic Northeast. Gardens and whole landscapes were still covered with snow at Passover.
Visitors in the Diaspora Garden on the 2015 Open Day at the Academy; Jewish Museum Berlin, photo: Hanna Wolf
The Seder plate with its contents, with what it’s currently allowed to feature and the newly added symbolic dishes or species, demonstrates the complexity and long historical development of this holiday. With its particular pungency, horseradish and its symbolic meaning don’t just recall the bitterness of slavery and forced migration. It is also, itself, a symbolic product of this history of migration.
Today there’s much that is no longer bitter, since centuries of cultivation have bred out the bitter compounds. Those who really want to taste the bitter flavor could consider tasting the crop from the Diaspora Garden. Due to the unnatural conditions of the location and the lack of sun, even the off-the-shelf varieties available here are woody and bitter — nearly inedible.
Regardless of the actual selection of bitter herbs for Seder this year, it will surely be a wonderful holiday with kith and kin.
Chag Pessach Sameach 5777!
Tanja Petersen studied history and biology. She has been conveying complex content and cultural subjects to Jewish Museum Berlin visitors for over 15 years.
You can find more information on the Diaspora Garden and its opening hours on our website: www.jmberlin.de/en/diaspora-garden
More on Passover at: www.jmberlin.de/en/topic-passover